Dark Moods in A Sun-Bleached Landscape

Rick Alverson

Rick Alverson

Director Rick Alverson follows up his highly polarizing previous feature, “The Comedy” (I’m thumbs up), with a story of another, albeit very different, man at loose ends.

In “Entertainment,” Neil Hamburger (Gregg Turkington’s standup persona), makes his way in his corroded Corolla through the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles, “on tour,” performing his comedy routine (for a literally captive audience at a California state prison, in crummy lounges and at an RV park), and taking in the tourist sites, such that they are–an airplane graveyard, an “olde” fake western town, an oil field.

Hamburger, dressed in a ill-fitting tux and brocade vest, his stringy hair styled in an extreme comb-over, greased across his forehead and skull, cradles three drinks, like a baby, in the crook of his arm. His comic timing is non-existent. With a voice with the appeal of “neils” on a blackboard, punctuated by an equally abrasive constant clearing of his throat, he delivers jokes that are off-the-mark, offensive, aggressive, not funny (except when they’re hilarious)–sometimes simultaneously. Rape is a favorite topic.

Hamburger’s off-stage appearance is only slightly less disturbing. He has a JCPenney wardrobe, polo shirts and shapeless pants, and a snapback cap promoting a Chinese restaurant, “Hoong Fat.” His affect is subdued, resigned, his posture poor, sinking into himself, evoking sympathy from the viewer.

His encounters with other people, including a distant and successful cousin (John C. Reilly), who owns orange groves and a plane, are at best awkward. But he endlessly tries to connect with Maria, his daughter, whom he calls “sweetheart” (identifying himself as Daddy), leaving interminable (and unrequited) voicemails. And in his dreamlife, he wears an all-white cowboy outfit, a glowing suit with a bejeweled, wide-lapeled jacket and an enormous hat.  Although the outfit is undeniably odd, it’s somehow also angelic.

Less happens in “Entertainment,” than in “The Comedy,” the sameness echoing the reality of Hamburger’s life on the road. He reaches L.A. and the “big break” booking at a new Gilded Age Hollywood Hills mansion, ends in disaster, with him tumbling into the pool.

Yet the “anti-comic,” like Samuel Beckett’s hero, must be thinking, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Maybe Alverson and  Hamburger (who says that he “traveled a long distance to carry these jokes” to the audience) are trying to jolt us out of our often banal pop/consumerist culture, by giving us exactly the entertainment we deserve.

“Entertainment,” the closing night film of the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 44th New Directors/New Films, will be shown on Sunday, March 29 at 4:00 pm (MoMA, Titus 1) and 7:00 pm (FSLC, Walter Reade Theater). A Q&A with Rick Alverson will follow both screenings.

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Viewing A Great Photographer’s Whole Earth Catalog

Wim Wenders

Wim Wenders

Wim Wenders’ new documentary, “The Salt of the Earth,” an homage to the legendary Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, explores the life and work of the artist/humanitarian/ecologist. Co-directed by Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the photographer’s filmmaker son, who had already shot vast hours of footage of his father while he had “taken his son to work” around the world.

For more than 40 years, Salgado has been a photographer nomad, bearing witness with his exquisite and empathetic images, always black and white, to indigenous cultures, workers (most famously those in a gold mine in Brazil) and major catastrophes, sometimes natural, but more often manmade, the results of war.

After his time in Rwanda photographing and living with the horrors of the genocide, Salgado was depleted. To help him heal, his wife (and creative partner), Lélia Wanick Salgado, suggested that the family return from Paris to the 600-hectare cattle ranch in Aimorés, Brazil, where he’d grown up and restore their personal earth.

What had once been a place of wild beauty was equally depleted. But miraculously the reforestation project begun then (which has included the planting of two million trees) has successfully restored the beautiful land (now an ecological reserve and national park).

Inspired by this home-grown beauty, in 2004 Salgado began his “Genesis” project, photographing pristine landscapes, and wildlife. In one of the most interesting “behind the scenes” footage of any photo shoot, Salgado slides on his stomach across a frozen beach toward a community of walruses.

Although Salgado has been criticized for layering “beauty” on top of misery, aestheticizing pain (an ongoing, general argument in documentary photography), I strongly disagree that the accusation applies to this work. It’s not necessary to know that Salgado spent weeks, often months with his subjects to recognize his respect for them and deep concern for their lives and his idealistic drive to bring change.

See “The Salt of the Earth” on as big a screen as possible. It’s glorious (as Salgado is talking about his work), to see his spectacular photographs, projected many multiples larger than his prints in galleries/museums or in his books.

“The Salt of the Earth” open on Friday, March 27 at the Angelika Film Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and in Los Angeles.

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Un Cuento de Dos Ciudades

Bill & Turner Ross

Bill & Turner Ross

For generations, before the drug cartels metastasized into Piedras Negras, Mexico, and the construction of the xenophobes’ wall was begun in Eagle Pass, TX, the neighbors on opposite sides of the Rio Grande lived together harmoniously, doing business together, celebrating together, intermarrying.

During the filming in New Orleans of their previous documentary, “Tchoupitoulas,” the Ross Brothers, Bill & Turner, decided that their next project would be a “non-fiction western.” Years of planning went into “Western.” And then, with simply a telephone pitch, the mayor of Eagle Pass, Chad Foster, a real life (bi-lingual) cowboy hero, agreed to let them set up their cinéma verité shop in his office, and as they followed him with cameras, facilitated their acceptance in his town.

For the filmmakers, Chad’s most important introduction was to cattleman Martín Wall, whose family has been in the business for over 120 years, and who’s Texas big–his stature, his mustache, his pick-up truck and his love for his young, ponytailed daughter Brylyn, who he’s raising as a single father.

“Western,” sharply-observed and moving, opens with a morning-in-America (and Mexico) shot of the Rio Grande at dawn.  And daily life unfolds over the thirteen months that Bill & Turner were embedded in Eagle Pass: meetings in Chad’s office (on his desk a sign says, “no wall between amigos”) with constituents, and friends from both towns; Martín and his workers bring cattle from Piedras Negras to his ranch and prepare them to be re-sold; Chad’s Mexican counterpart, the well-liked José Manuel Maldonado works on real estate development and opportunity in his town; the people on both sides of the border go to cafés, church, carnivals, rodeos, the annual  Friendship Day Parade.

Unwanted change arrives. Drug violence–brutal murders and torture in Acuña, near Piedras Negras–causes the USDA to shut down the livestock trade and the open-endedness of the ban creates anxiety for Martín. A sudden thunderstorm causes flooding and a plane carrying Mayor Maldonado to view the devastating damage explodes, likely the work of the cartels.  The border fence, which Chad opposes, encroaches.

“Western,” a film that strides the new border in cinema between documentary and narrative, ends with a shot at sunset. Chad (who declined to run for a fourth term–as he tells a reporter, “I didn’t want to be a pig at the trough”), rides in his open Jeep, looking out over the Rio Grande. The neighbors’ simpatico relationship has been tragically and forever altered.

“Western,” included in the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 44th New Directors/New Films, will be shown on Sunday, March 22 at 3:30 pm (MoMA, Titus 1) and Monday, March 23 at 8:45 pm (FSLC, Walter Reade Theater). A Q&A with Bill & Turner Ross will follow both screenings.

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A Space for the Light

Eugène Green, NYC, 09/29/14

Eugène Green, NYC, 09/29/14

Alexandre Schmid (Fabrizio Rongione, recently seen as Marion Cotillard’s supportive husband in “Two Days, One Night”), a brilliant Swiss architect, deeply concerned that his work has become moribund, sets off on an intellectual journey to Italy.  His guide is the Baroque genius, Francesco Borromini: Schmid’s plan is to re-visit some of the great architect’s churches, to write about them, and “to think.”

His French wife Aliénor, (Christelle Prot Landmann, who looks a bit like Agnès Jaoui), works at an intersection of psychology and sociology, studying groups and what they need for well-being. Hoping to close the distance that has opened in their marriage, she offers to accompany Alexandre on his study trip, which will become unexpectedly emotional and spiritual.

A native New Yorker, (but French by choice), auteur Eugène Green, in his miraculous new film, “La Sapienza”  (a standout at the 2014 New York Film Festival), studies Baroque architecture, Italian cityscapes and landscapes, and faces to reveal the presence of light, divine (although that word and “god” are never spoken in his film), and in human lives.

After viewing the house in Bissone (Switzerland) where Borromini was born in 1599, Alexandre and Aliénor travel to the nearby Italian city Stresa, perched above spectacular Lake Maggiore. While walking in a lush park, they come to the aid of teenage siblings, Lavinia  (Arianna Nastro), who has suddenly become ill (having suffered from a nervous disorder since childhood), and her older brother, Goffredo (Ludovico Succio), who is soon to begin his architectural studies in Venice.

The four form an unlikely friendship. Aliénor chooses to stay in Stresa to get to know and help Lavinia and persuades Alexandre to take the intellectually precocious Goffredo with him to Turin and Rome, allowing the young man to discover Borromini’s first commission, San Carlino alle Quattro Fontane, and his glorious masterpiece, Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza. Green’s camera, continually, eagerly gazing upward, turns 360º when reaching the cupola.

Green’s characters, who speak unnaturally (but rivetingly) in mannered cadences and full, articulate, beautiful sentences, also ask particularly straight-forward questions (if often it’s simply “perché?”).  He shoots conversations in a shot/countershot pattern, with the actors looking deeply into the camera, the surrogate for each other’s eyes. Initially unnerving to watch, but then all-involving–it’s as if the speaker is addressing the film’s viewer.

The redemptive power of art, the presence of light (“La Sapineza” is beautifully photographed by Green’s  longtime cinematographer Raphäel O’Byrne) and true human interaction restore Alexandre and Aliénor emotionally. Lavinia, in an ideal summer dress, seemingly made of light, says she’s cured, and that the shadow she’s always seen falling on Goffredo has disappeared.

Reunited, in the park where they met the siblings, Alexandre tells Aliénor that the “source of beauty is love…the source of knowledge is light.” And light is what’s used to make movies, it’s the rawest of raw materials.

“La Sapienza” opens today at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and at Film Forum on Friday, March 27 for a two-week run, followed by a release to select cities.

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A Song to Drown Out the Bad News From Israel

Dana Ivgy, NYC, 11/26/14

Dana Ivgy, NYC, 11/26/14

The five-column headline on the front page of today’s New York Times (yes, I still look at print), “Netanyahu Soundly Defeats Chief Rival,” trumpeted the Israeli prime minister’s win, his fourth term. The victory, after what had appeared to be  a close contest, was achieved in no small part because of the bile Netanyahu has been spewing–vociferously criticizing Israeli Arabs for exercising their right to vote in their democracy–and his slamming the door on a two-state solution.

But not everything out of Israel this week is misery-inducing. Dana Ivgy, part of the generation of young Israelis who have progressive ideas and creative careers (and families and friends), sent me a link for her new music video.

I knew she was a fascinating actress, intense, but also a natural comedian–her films include “Or (My Treasure)” and “Zero Motivation,” which played at Film Forum last December. But I didn’t know that she’s also a really talented singer, dancer and director. Watch Dana’s video,  “On the Bus”  (shot when she was in New York), the ideal antidote for Netanyahu’s poison.

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J’adore Seymour

Seymour Bernstein and Ethan Hawke, NYC, 2/19/15

Seymour Bernstein and Ethan Hawke, NYC, 2/19/15

My headline really isn’t irreverent. While Seymour Bernstein, the peerless subject of Ethan Hawke’s wonderful new documentary, “Seymour: An Introduction,” is undeniably a man with a profound worldview, he’s also warm, generous, funny and a bit bawdy.

Hawke says that when he met Bernstein at a mutual friend’s dinner party, he’d been “struggling with why I do what I do, what’s authentic.” Fascinated listening to Bernstein, sensing that the great musician had also dealt with these issues, Hawke chose to film him and the result is a portrait of the artist and a life well-lived.

Bernstein was a child prodigy, from a family without music (who “didn’t even own records”), and a much-lauded concert pianist (a New York Times review from a 1969 performance at Alice Tully Hall, says he “triumphs at the piano”).  And for more than 30 years, he has been a beloved and revered piano teacher.

What Bernstein, with his great and beautiful gift, teaches is not just how to be an artist, specifically a pianist, but how to breathe (“most of us breathe so poorly, it’s a wonder we stay alive); how to be (the “real essence of who we are resides in our talent”–and he is enormously broad in defining talent); and how to live (the balancing of harmony and dissonance, “the same thing happens in music”).

Although he had abandoned his performing career 35 years earlier (“I was comfortable that I could say what I wanted on stage” and was eager to leave behind the commercial aspects of the business and the “horrible nerves” that gripped him prior to performing), during the making of the film Seymour selected the “best in show” Steinway and performed on April 4, 2012 in Steinway Hall on West 57th Street.

As he gloriously plays the piano, street life and cars are seen through the large window framing him.  On the film’s soundtrack he discusses music, a guide to living, “Music is the aural manifestation of universal order, (it) dispels loneliness and discontent…we sense in music our own potential for perfection.”

“Seymour: An Introduction” will open on Friday, March 13 at the IFC Center and the  Lincoln Plaza Cinema, followed by a national rollout. Seymour Bernstein will be in person at IFC on opening night at 6:15 pm and 8:15 pm shows. Bernstein will be joined by Ethan Hawke on Saturday, March 14 at 6:15 pm and 8:15 pm, and Sunday, March 15 at 4:15 pm and 6:15 pm.

The only person other than Seymour Bernstein whom I’ve heard speak with such intellectual and emotional clarity is the great Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön. I have several of her books and a DVD set (with my portrait of Ani Pema on the cover). I played piano (abysmally) as a child but I’m not entirely being facetious when I off-handedly mention that I’d love to take piano lessons with Seymour.

The film is 81 perfect minutes.  I wanted more, could have watched for hours, and was extremely happy when I was asked to photograph Ethan and Seymour for the film’s publicity. Thank you Charlie, Ryan and Lauren for thinking of me for this shoot and Annick for making the scheduling work.

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We’ll Always Have Rendez-Vous

Clockwise from top left: Benoît Jacquot, Isild Le Besco, Virginie Ledoyen and Isabelle Huppert

Clockwise from top left: Benoît Jacquot, Isild Le Besco, Virginie Ledoyen and Isabelle Huppert

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, the New York Francocinephile’s feast, in its 20th edition, features work that is  glamorous, challenging, provocative, entertaining, original. The Film Society of Lincoln Center and UniFrance film’s 2015 lineup includes 22 features and four shorts, from emerging and established directors.

In the opening night film, “3 Hearts,” from master filmmaker Benoît Jacquot, Marc (Benoît Poelvoorde), a subdued tax inspector, based in Paris, returning from a visit to a provincial office, misses his train, which proves to be a fortuitous accident. Buying cigarettes, he meets subdued Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and they spend the evening walking and talking–the two fall deeply in love. Without exchanging contact info (or even names), they arrange to meet at a fountain in Paris, but destiny upends their plan. Sylvie leaves for the United States with her boyfriend for a work opportunity and during another trip to the branch office, Marc meets–and falls in love with–subdued Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni), unaware that she’s Sylvie’s beloved sister.

Jacquot is well-known as skilled and sensitive director of women and Gainsbourg and Mastroianni are movingly believable as sisters, and daughters to their mother (played by Catherine Deneuve, Mastroianni’s real life mother). But the casting of Poelvoorde–less attractive and charismatic than binders full of French actors–is problematic.  Suspend disbelief and accept that both Sylvie and Sophie adore him and enjoy the story.

In conjunction with Rendez-Vous, the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF), is presenting on Tuesdays in March, a series of Benoît Jacquot’s films, “Leading Ladies,” starring Isild Le Besco, Viginie Ledoyen, Léa Seydoux and Isabelle Huppert.

Disappeared children–a young heiress likely murdered by her mother’s ambitious and vengeful former lawyer, and two young boys, abducted by their father whose counterculture, off-the-grid, anti-consumerist lifestyle, has its own rigid rules–drive the plots in the new films of two other masters, André Téchiné and Cédric Kahn.

Téchiné’s “In the Name of My Daughter,” is based on actual events: the manipulation of a recently divorced young woman, Agnès Le Roux (Adèle Haenel), by a greedy lawyer Maurice Agnelet–no little lamb–(Guillaume Canet), leading to the betrayal of her mother, Renée Le Roux (Catherine Deneuve), the owner of a grand casino.

Nora (Céline Sallette) grows disenchanted with living off the land and the nomadic life she shares with her husband Paco (Mathieu Kassovitz–a staggering performance) and young sons in Kahn’s riveting “Wild Life.” While he’s away from their caravan, doing errands, she flees, taking a train to her parents’ house. Subsequently winning custody of their children, she begins to reintegrate into the community. But Paco’s furious love for his sons and disgust for the workings of bourgeois society transforms everyone’s lives.

Cédric Kahn

Cédric Kahn

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema runs from Friday, March 6 through Sunday, March 15, with screenings at Alice Tully Hall, Film Society’s Walter Reade Theater and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, the IFC Center and BAMcinématek.

“3 Hearts” will open on Friday, March 13 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema, followed by a national roll-out.

“In the Name of My Daughter” will open on Friday, May 8 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

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